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ontology

so… another cis person wrote a thing:1

reminder that biology isn’t oppressive or a social construct

which, of course, is a fucking lie. just a straight out lie.

i”m not, however, going to spend too much time on these notions itself.

instead, i want to use this as a springboard to talk about two things i personally find interesting: ontology and epistemology. they are two philosphical notions that depend heavily on the other. ontology is the theory about what exists. and epistemology addresses the question of how we know things and what constitutes knowledge.

the way they interact, in one case, is that we can have knowledge about things that actually exist. we don”t know anything about unicorns because they don”t exist (much to the despair of many). what is knowable depends on what exists. of course, many ontologies go deeper than just determining what exists, but can also deal with the similarities/differences between existent objects.

epistemology is necessary because we tend to think that there should be some principled way to distinguish between the statements “unicorns look like horses” and “three is a prime number.” We don”t often want to assert that both sentences are equal in their factualness. Like, that both count as ‘knowledge.”1

Of course, this can get super complicated because some people do want “god loves me” and “three is a prime number” to both count as real knowledge. fortunately, I”m not here to discuss this. esp. not when I think my ancestors communicate with me.

there are obviously many different ontologies and many different epistemologies, even if we only talk about the white, greek descended traditions. expand this globally and we have ontologies and epistemologies as diverse as the people who use them.

so when we look at that earlier phrase “biology isn”t oppressive or a social construct”

the charitable interpretation of this is that the person who wrote it is asserting that our physical bodies are real (as well as that of any living thing) and that the study of them, biology, isn”t oppressive. Likely because the study of living things that exist in the world cannot be oppressive because it only interprets or discovers or creates knowledge about these real, existent living creatures.

this is the charitable view. and even on this view, we can see that it is already making a bunch of possibly unwarranted assumptions. Like… how do we know that living creatures exist or are real? Perhaps we really do live in the matrix and none of this world actually exists. If this is the case, then any ‘knowledge” that we have about living beings, couldn”t possibly count as knowledge since they refer to non-existent entities created by oppressive robots.

but assuming that, yes, the external world is real and that living creatures exist. and that their existence confers no moral, normative anything, such that their mere existence, this bare fact, is neutral.

does the neutrality of existence confer neutrality on the study of this existence (ie, is this neutrality transitive for biology)? this is, of course, a different question. and it requires a sort of exhaustive discussion on the nature of scientific truths.

but it is somewhat generally accepted (though hotly contested, of course) that this xkcd comic shows the relationship between different kinds of scientific truth

we can see that biologists are one step above chemists and one below psychology. while we all know that psychology is, at best, a pseudoscience, we also know that yes, psychology is oppressive. what of biology?

well, the most vanilla definition for ‘biology” is the study of living things. now, given that scientific racism/biological racism is still at thing that is alive and kicking, nothing about the vanilla definition discounts biological racism from being ‘biology.” It is just as much biology as microbiology. Both study living things. One of these subtypes of biology, of course, tends to produce highly defeasible hypothesis and, well, a lot of fucking errors and falsehoods, while the other not so much.

But. but. but! I can hear some of you saying, biological racism must be understood in its proper social/historical context. it isn”t ~real~ biology, you say.

Okay. Granted. But then this means that you have a basic understanding of what it means for biology to be socially constructed. what counts as ‘good” or ‘bad” biology is bounded by context. if we can say that ‘this study of living things” is biology at one point, only to assert that ‘this same type of study of living things” is not biology at another point, then this clearly entails that ‘biology” isn”t a stable concept.

It is to say that ‘biology” or what we understand as ‘biology” is contingent on external factors like time, social group, or whatever else.

saying that biology, as such, is social construct doesn”t suddenly make it unreal. asserting that, like biological racism, current instatiations of biology are also oppressive also doesn”t make them non-biology and if this does happen, then, well, i”m not sure how you cannot see how this perspective allows us to improve and refine biology in certain important ways.

excluding something like biological racism from being biology only makes biology, and science as a whole, better. this is one of the primary benefits of understanding biology as a social construct. it becomes, rather than stable and unchanging, something mutable and able to change.

and yet… this is somehow a bad thing, according to person above.

  1. Although, i find this part of her bio super interesting… “Before you get on to me about white privilege, I’m half Mexican and British”. Interesting that in either defensively guarding against charges of white privilege instead of naming her race, she names two nationalities. you can be half Mexican and half british and still all cracker. jsyk.